Mr. Kotto was about 16 when he dropped out of high school in New York City, told his parents he would look for a job and began spending his days at the movies in secret — once catching a Times Square screening of “On the Waterfront” (1954). It was his first Marlon Brando film, and it left him utterly transformed.
“I couldn’t speak. It was like somebody had punched me in the stomach,” he later told the Orange County Register. “It was like someone had crashed cymbals in both ears. I was blasted out of the theater. I knew from that moment that I wanted to be an actor.”
Mr. Kotto said he saw glimpses of himself in Brando’s character, a defiant young man who struggles to connect with women and fellow dockworkers. His father was a Jewish construction worker from Cameroon, his mother a Catholic nurse and Army officer from Panama, and he grew up as one of the only boys wearing a yarmulke in Harlem, and as one of the only African American students at a predominantly Irish school in the Bronx.
He later studied acting and practiced his diction with a tape recorder, rising to national prominence in 1969 after he replaced James Earl Jones as the Broadway star of “The Great White Hope,” based on the life of Jack Johnson, the first Black world heavyweight champion.
The next year, he starred on-screen in “The Liberation of L.B. Jones,” playing a young man who returns to his Southern hometown and kills a White police officer who had brutalized him years earlier. Mr. Kotto credited the film with helping inspire the Blaxploitation genre, telling the Big Issue, a British street newspaper: “No one had seen a Black man kill a White man on-screen prior to that.”
As Mr. Kotto put it, he was “the opposite” of Sidney Poitier, who had become one of Hollywood’s first Black stars while taking dignified and restrained film roles. Instead, he took parts in which Black characters targeted spies, chased down bank robbers, went into space and fought their White counterparts head-on.
“My publicist once told me: ‘We don’t know how to sell you. In your last picture you threw a White man in the thresher. People think you are mean,’ ” he recalled in a 1976 speech to an organization of Black female journalists. “But Black folks see my films and say” — he paused, letting the audience finish his sentence — “right on.”
Mr. Kotto starred as the villainous Kananga, a Caribbean dictator and drug smuggler also known as Mr. Big, in “Live and Let Die” (1973), the first Bond film to star Roger Moore. After trying to kill 007 at a crocodile farm and then in a shark tank, his character is forced to swallow a compressed gas pellet, causing him to explode like a popped balloon.
He later received an Emmy nomination for best supporting actor, as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the TV movie “Raid on Entebbe” (1977), and earned some of the finest reviews of his career for Paul Schrader’s “Blue Collar” (1978), as a Detroit autoworker who robs his union headquarters with Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel. Mr. Kotto delivered “picture-stealing force and charm,” wrote film critic Andrew Sarris.
In later years he appeared alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the dystopian action film “The Running Man” (1987), played an FBI agent chasing Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin in “Midnight Run” (1988) and starred as Baltimore police Lt. Al Giardello in the NBC drama “Homicide: Life on the Street,” which ran for seven seasons in the 1990s.
By then, he was well known for playing heavies — a prison inmate opposite Robert Redford in “Brubaker” (1980), a police detective in “The Star Chamber” (1983) — and was ready to take on more sensitive roles, including as a romantic lead. “I’m always called powerful, bulky or imposing,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “Or they say I fill up a room. I’m a 200-pound, 6-foot, 3-inch Black guy. And I think I have this image of a monster.”
His tough-guy reputation rested in part on “Alien” (1979), director Ridley Scott’s landmark science-fiction and horror film. Mr. Kotto played the engineer Parker, traveling on the spaceship Nostromo with an otherwise all-White crew that included Sigourney Weaver and John Hurt, who becomes the host for a parasitic alien.
One of the film’s most chilling sequences saw Mr. Kotto try to restrain Hurt as the alien breaks through his chest in an eruption of blood — a sequence that genuinely shocked Mr. Kotto, although he had been tipped off that something unusual was about to happen by crew members wearing “goggles and white smocks.”
“I thought this was a cheap, exploitative event. . . . I was up three nights thinking maybe I should get out of the industry and become a lawyer or something,” he told the entertainment website Nerdist in 2019. “But I didn’t realize we had just made history. Later on when we went to the theater, people were running out of the theater screaming, and I realized we had done something special. But at the time it just seemed like some claptrap phony thing with blood and gore.”
Samuel Frederick Kotto was born in New York City on Nov. 15, 1939, according to his agent, and adopted the Hebrew name Yaphet at a young age. In his telling, his father was descended from Cameroonian royalty. His parents separated when he was a child, and he was raised by his maternal grandparents.
Mr. Kotto played Othello in a regional theater production on Cape Cod and made his movie debut with a small role in “Nothing But a Man” (1964), about a Black couple facing discrimination in the South. A year later he was on Broadway, with a supporting part in “The Zulu and the Zayda,” a musical comedy set in Johannesburg.
He guest-starred in episodes of “The Big Valley” and “Mannix” and appeared in movies such as “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968), “Bone” (1972) and “Across 110th Street” (1972) before directing “The Limit” (1972), in which he played a Los Angeles police officer who squares off with a motorcycle gang.
Mr. Kotto later said he was afraid of being typecast after “Alien” and turned down two roles that would have taken him back to space: Lando Calrissian in the Star Wars movie “The Empire Strikes Back” and Capt. Jean-Luc Picard in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” His later roles were more earthbound, and included a return to the stage in 1990 productions of August Wilson’s “Fences,” in Washington and London’s West End.
His marriages to Rita Dittman and Toni Pettyjohn ended in divorce, and in 1997 he married Thessa Sinahon, a former cook and secretary from the Philippines. He had six children, but complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
Mr. Kotto appeared in more than 90 film and television productions, and said he was regularly approached on the street by people who recognized him. “They can’t think of what picture they have seen me in,” he told the Sun in 1993, “but they know me. That’s good. That means I am becoming an institution.”